6.1 How can I make the concept of “the true content and affect” relevant to my performance?
As part of my artistic method, I studied Emanuel Bach’s keyboard treatise: Versuchüber die wahre Art, das Clavier zu spielen (Bach [1753 and ’62] 1992). Here he refers to the “content” of the music, and discusses the “true content and affect” (in German “Inhalt” and “wahre Inhalt und Affect”.) This is the content the musician must make the ear sensitive to; see the quotation. But what is this concept exactly? What did Bach himself have to say about it? And how can I – as a modern musician – bring its influence to bear on my approach to the music? I will not be offering any musicological analysis of the concept, but reflecting on how it can be applied to my artistic practice.
What did Bach say?
Bach uses these concepts frequently in the chapter on musical delivery; ”Vom Vortrage”. My impression is that he is drawing a distinction between content/true content and affects/passion: they typically occur together, but appear to represent quite distinct phenomena.
What words does Bach use to describe these phenomena? Firstly, regarding how the performer may understand the content of a musical thought or in a piece of music – he should be assisted by the composer:
”Given that one should play every piece according to its true content, and with the associated affects, composers do well by furnishing their compositions not only with tempo designations, but even with such words as explain the content. As good as this advice is, it will be of no use in preventing their pieces from being disfigured, if they do not also add the customary signs for the execution.”
”Indem man also ein jedes Stück nach seinem wahren Inhalte, und mit dem gehörigen Affecte speilen soll; so thun die Componisten wohl wenn sie ihren Ausarbeitungen ausser der Bezeichnung des Tempo, annoch solche Wörter vorsetzen, wodurch der Inhalt derselb enerkläret wird. So gut diese Vorsicht ist, so wenig würde sie hinlänglich seyn, das Verhudeln ihrer Stücke zuverhindern, wenn sie nicht auch zugleich die gewöhnlichen Zeichen, welche den Vortrag angehen, den Noten beyfügten” (Bach  1992, p. 124).
Then, on the affects/passions: It is the duty of the performer to relate to these, especially when playing music he did not compose himself:
“He will always observe this duty [of personally embracing all the affects] in pieces that are expressively set – be they by himself or others: In the latter case he must in himself feel the same emotions as the originator of the other piece felt when composing it.”
”Diese Schuldigkeit [sich selbst in alle Affecten setzen] beobachtet er überhaupt bey Stücken, welche ausdrückend gesetzt sind, sie mögen von ihm selbst oder von jemanden anders herrühren; im letztern Falle muß er dieselbe Leidenschaften bey sich empfinden, welche der Urheber des fremden Stücks bey dessen Verfertigung hatte” (Bach  1992, p. 122).
The performer is also advised to take every opportunity to listen to good musical delivery – especially of songs, in order to develop a singing style of playing (Bach  1992, pp. 119-120 and 121-122).
My personal model for understanding the concept
How am I to interpret Bach’s words on these concepts of “the true content and the affects” in music? It is perhaps typical that in my time I have been struck by the idea of all the potential sources of error and misunderstandings, and the complexity of all manner of confounding problems that crop up at the sight of “the true content”. Whereas Bach – on closer inspection – appears to be using it more as a technical concept. He is largely addressing people who moved in more or less the same cultural circles as he himself. This is why he can refer to technical terms without having to explain them.
One possibility would be to frame the concept of “content”in the context of the discourse on instrumental music that prevailed in Germany in Bach’s time: could instrumental music hold any content, or was it empty and meaningless because it did not imitate nature? Vocal music was easier for the sceptics to explain because words provided a key to understanding what the music concerned. (This discourse is discussed at length in Hosler’s Changing aesthetic views of instrumental music in 18th century Germany, 1981.) In this context, the concept of “content” is used in the sense of what the music 'says'; what it signifies or expresses.
Bach expresses himself in distinctly more technical terms when referring to this concept than the difficult complex of problems that arise when I read it: because he is actually stating that composers should help the performer to understand the content using a combination of musical terms (”customary signs” and ”tempo designations”) and ”such words as explain the content”. In other words, we are talking about a type of content that is readily conveyed in keywords and symbols.
Then Bach states that the performer should feel the same emotions as the originator of the music. Did he mean that the information received by the performer; from the score – with all manner of assistive signs and keywords to explain the content – together with the stylistic ability or taste, the ‘cultural formation’ that was trained from listening to good instrumentalists and vocalists – was sufficient for an understanding of how the other person felt? Sufficient enough, perhaps?
A summary of my understanding of these two concepts would be as follows: I believe that the “content” (Inhalt) denotes the semiotic structure; how the music is constructed and hence what it is expressing. Semiotic elements exist in several ‘layers’ of the musical structure – as in language, for example: the choice of words, sentence structure (or fragmentation) and the narrative they convey when assembled – the latter is something a composer might hint at by providing the occasional keyword. In other words, a very comprehensive but technical concept denoting what the piece expresses based on its structure.
I read the emphatic “the true” as a kind of reassurance that this concerns the original, authentic understanding, informed by thorough comprehension rather than quick-fixes and shortcuts. This is also how it is used in the title of Versuch – die wahre Art. Meaning, not keyboard playing as taught by half-schooled rogues, (Bach  1992, pp. 1-4) but thorough, proper, true knowledge. Thus, I believe that the “true content” denotes a thorough understanding of what a musical structure expresses, or ‘signifies’, if you will.
The “affects” or “passions” however, I read as denoting the emotions expressed in the music. The manner in which the musical composition affects someone emotionally as a composer, performer or listener. The music is necessarily designed so that the “content” will arouse certain “affects”.
But how should I abide by these concepts as a modern-day musician? What practical value do they hold for me?
My professional background is in Historically Informed Performance (HIP), in which the musician seeks to perform a historical repertoire on the basis of what is known about performance practices from the same period and cultural community as the repertoire was composed in (as described in “Early Music”, Haskell 2017). This approach, which alternates between reading period sources and practical experiments, was thus fundamental for me in this project too. By gaining greater insights into the context in which the music was placed, I aspire to gain a stronger sense of empathy and intimacy with the material and can consequently play it with greater conviction.
However, this increased knowledgeability combined with greater empathy and intimacy with the material cuts both ways: the more I learn, the more questions I have. The more I identify with Emanuel Bach and his era, the clearer it becomes to me how long it is since he lived, and how much the world has changed over the intervening centuries: the more I strive to get close, the more distanced I find myself.
This constant stream of new questions produces a creative dynamic which requires that I take decisions and make artistic choices.
In the following, I present 5 examples of how I worked reflexively within this dynamic between the questions of practical performance and artistic reality.
In addressing the concepts of the true contents and the affects, the duality becomes immediately apparent. I based my reasoning above on the context in which the concepts are used, and what we know of contemporary discourse. Another investigator might well apply different reasoning due to differences in interest and personal experience. Greater insight into the context is conducive to understanding of the concept, but I can never achieve absolute certainty of what Bach intended.
However, let us assume, applying the reasoning above, that Bach required musicians to familiarise themselves with, and understand, the structural elements in order to form an opinion on what the piece concerns and the feelings conveyed. And that he then wanted us to bring this into play, so that the listeners experience it.
If my understanding of his principles is more or less correct, I am not sure whether I am interpreting the content (the structures) as Bach intended, and even less sure that I am feeling exactly the same that he did when he composed it. As I gather more insight and experience – as I read, as I play more repertoires – my understanding of the context will become clearer and more relevant, and this will hopefully make my empathy with the music more well-attuned. However, all of this sophistry goes to show that I have a different attitude to the music than Bach did, and hence different emotions: Bach was the supreme master of his material. He conceived it, and he could do with it as he pleased. The more I study, reconstruct and ponder it, the more I distance myself from this supreme mastery of the material.
Moreover, when I come to play so that people “see and hear from my appearance and performance” (Bach  1992, p. 112) THAT I feel the music as I play it or, indeed, WHAT I feel about it: what did it mean “to play from the soul” for Bach or others in the 18th century (Bach  1992, p. 119)? What musical (and visible) gestures were perceived as expressive? Bach lists a number of musical devices, including dynamics, vibrato and several variants of articulations and variations in tempo (Bach  1992, p. 117).
But how far to go? How distinct should the touch and articulation devices be – showy or subtle? Listen, for example, to my recording of Andante Wq 55/6, from 1’36’’ (just to the right of this text): In the ascending line of the right hand, and then the left, Bach marked strokes above certain notes to indicate that they are shorter. At first glance, this is rather odd – it halts the flow of the phrase, arrests the pulse, because the strokes are placed at variable points in the beat. Yet this is integral to the music – Bach obviously intended this effect. The question is then how great their effect should be: the more I make of them, the greater their impact. The stroke tells us something about the length of the note (Bach  1992 s. 125), but not directly about the dynamic – this depends on the character, and is then for me to decide. If the dynamic is kept unchanged, the effect will be to create a kind of abrupt end to the phrase with each short note. This effect will be even greater if the short note is played more quietly than the rest – then it will almost be a gap in the pavement. If, however, it is played more loudly, the effect will be insistent – a series of unpredictable marcatos to trip over. These effects will in turn be influenced by how much the notes are shortened, and the length of the pause that follows them. I have used these variables in the mode of expression to emphasise the directions of the music: in the high register, the articulation is more discreet, while being more pronounced in the lower register in order to build up to the chord change following the descending line of the left hand.
How large fluctuations in tempo, and how long stretches of accelerando and ritardando? Listen, for example to Rondo Wq 56/1, from 6’43’’: Here I let the tempo follow the phrase, both up and down. I do so intuitively, meaning that I follow what I perceive as 'normal'. My perception of this normality has been shaped by the tuition I have received, and what I am accustomed to from listening to those of my contemporary musicians whom I find relevant for my own performance. Part of this influence derives from various musicians who practice or are influenced by research in historical performance practice, such as Lars Kristian Haugbro's thesis from 2006 Tempo Fluctuations in the Performance of Joseph Haydn’s Keyboard Sonata in F Major, Hob. XVI:29. My reading of this thesis also influences my insights into and attitude to tempo fluctuations as a means of expression – insights and attitudes which I channel back to the professional music scene in the form of my artistic choices.
My perception of 'normal' is also influenced by 10 wonderful years of childhood piano lessons from Hungarian Elisabeth Klein, who did not allow much tempo variation; and by prevailing attitudes in society, which regard weeping and other emotional outbursts as private, and inappropriate in public. But also by a number of other impetuses that I find artistically relevant and inspiring.
Bach's perception of 'normal' was based on the multitude of complex impetuses that made up his era and culture. The written sources we currently draw on to understand 18th century performance practice were written in order to adjust both the good and bad aspects of this 18thcentury 'normal', and will obviously be confounding if we apply them uncritically to our own cultural context, as demonstrated by Haugbro (Haugbro 2006, pp. 45-47). As long as the sources of our knowledge are relative to their own, closed context, our knowledge will be limited by our ability to understand that context. The 18th century is no more, and what we reconstruct through research are thus our own narratives of 18th century mores (Gundersen 2017, p. 11).
What of the rhythms within the bar? Were all the beats of the bar EXACTLY the same length, or were they ‘swung’ in the manner that is now the preserve of the Viennese waltz? Listen, for example, to the opening of the same piece. Here I experiment with a swing, in which the first beat is prolonged, the third is shortened and the second varies. Speculative it may be, but I see no reason why it could not have been so at the time, especially in dance music: this would then be a very rigid interpretation of the hierarchy of beats of the bar. Clearly, much work remains to be done to be able to claim that this was the practice. For now, I take the liberty of treating it as an open question.
“All these embellishments [in adagios] must be carried out roundly and in such a way, that one might believe that only simple notes are heard. This entails a freedom that precludes anything mechanical and slavish. One must play from the soul, and not like a trained bird. …”
“Es müssen aber alle diese Manieren [in Adagios] rund und der gestalt vorgetragen werden, daß man glauben sollte, man höre bloße simple Noten. Es gehört hie zu eine Freyheit, die alles schlawische und maschinenmäßige ausschliesset. Aus der Seele muß man spielen, und nicht wie ein abgerichteter Vogel. …”(Bach  1992, p. 119).
Rounded, with a singing quality and distinctly, and not least playing from the soul again, Bach. But how far were early musicians going in their extroversion? What degree of ‘soulful eversion’ was socially acceptable? Van Elferen argues that the 18th-century Empfindsamkeit concert culture demanded more emotionality than in the modern concert hall culture (Van Elferen, 2007). Bania and Skowroneck demonstrate that Bach and his contemporaries literally mean that, in order to play expressively, performers must engage personally in the emotions they seek to convey (Bania & Skowroneck, forthcoming). This principle has been one of the main premises for my work, and the background for my concert experiments. Nevertheless, I have wondered whether my own way of conveying that I am emotionally engaged as a performer would have been socially acceptable in the 18th century: I have a tendency to rock my upper body, and breathe audibly when I play. Is this perhaps a late- or post-romantic pianistic compulsion? And when I play – listen, for example, to Rondo Wq 56/1 again, from 2’35’’: I hope that Bach would have heard this powerful execution of the ascending line as expressive, in the way that I intend, and that it would not have been excessive to him.
In other words, I cannot draw firm conclusions about what Bach and his age attributed to the concepts of content and affect, or how they used musical devices for expressive performance. These concepts were, however, of sufficient importance for Bach to devote one in three chapters in the first part of his keyboard treatise to discussing performance alone – not just how to play correctly, but with feeling, and also on how to mediate music to an audience. I believe that this is indicative of his preoccupations as a musician and composer. Equally, he is not the only one to urge performers to play “from the heart”; such appeals are found in the majority of his contemporary instrument schools: This quality was a prevailing sentiment of his time.
For this reason, I do not feel I can refrain from addressing these questions, even if they are difficult to find reliable answers to. The level of detail and the subtleties of Emanuel Bach's explanations not only THAT one must play from the heart, but HOW – what devices are to be used – make it too simplistic to settle for the conclusion that “OK, Bach was preoccupied with expressiveness, so I have to focus a bit extra on that when I’m playing”.
It may seem safer to avoid questions because they are complex or impossible to find the right answer to, but it is more fun and instructive to keep asking them! Keeping questions open preserves a creative tension: the fact of not knowing inspires a spirit of inquiry, not only for a single answer, but several possible alternatives.
This is the challenge I set myself to avoid settling complacently in my own comfort zone – where I either focus on all the things I do know about 18th century performance practice, and in so doing lose interest in any further inquiry – or, conversely, give up exploring because, whichever path I take, it won’t quite be the right one. If I stop trying, then I won’t make any progress.
I do not envisage my style of playing ultimately becoming identical with the style that prevailed when the music was new. This is neither possible nor desirable, as my world is completely different from the world as it was then. Source studies provide an inexhaustible source of questions and artistic impetus – as methods for the artistic endeavour. Jostein Gundersen in Essay on the relation between Historically Informed Performance and Artistic Research argues that HIP is a research method rather than a goal in itself (Gundersen 2017, p. 5).
In sum, I am making the concepts of content and affect relevant to my performances by taking a stance on them. In forming my conception of what they might signify, I am able to embrace a diversity of possible realisations of them, which reveal themselves when I engage with the music. Yet in the broader scheme of things, my aspirations as a musician today are no different to those of my 18th century counterpart: to understand the music – its construction, the structure, the content – as best I can, and convey to the listeners what I find meaningful, moving and interesting in the music. Just WHAT I find moving and interesting would have been altogether different than what absorbed an 18th century musician, and presumably also my way of conveying it: my way of playing movingly is something I learned from listening to performances that have moved me (link). The musical impulses I took on board colour my understanding of Emanuel Bach’s music and what interests me in it, what I seek to impart though it. This is a half-conscious, semi-intuitive process that occurs unbidden – gathering emotional experiences being a lifelong process. This is how we are formed (and I wouldn’t have it any other way).
As a participant in a professional discourse in which a great many of the arguments are presented in the form of artistic choices, based on a more or less historically informed, but ultimately, intuitive conviction, I feel the urge to seek alternative solutions. I am convinced that there are a great many more ways of realising the music than I can readily imagine, including within what we know of 18th-century performance practice. And I believe that as an artist and researcher, I have a responsibility for investigating as openly as I can.
3.3 Track: Up close
The idea of seating the audience closely around the clavichord came to me in a meeting with my research fellow year-group: the choreographer in our year, Eva-Cecilie Richardsen, had shared a series of photos with us. She had scanned dancers in a 3D scanner and printed them out in different positions in a 3D printer – tiny human bodies in a lightweight, white medium. Fragile – some of the figures had broken one or more limbs. In expressive, often contorted, positions.
We were standing around the table, looking at the images together. Suddenly, I was aware of all the bodies of my year-group around me. Their proximity was combined with the intense impression of fragile materiality, an uncompromising expressiveness, in the photographs.
Could I recreate this experience with the clavichord? After all, it has many of the same attributes: the sound emitted is faint, tender, while the style of Emanuel Bach’s music is far from tentative. I immediately set about assembling the audience around the instrument more closely than either they or I myself would naturally have ‘dared’. I played the Rondo in C Major from Kenner und Liebhaber (Wq 56/1). I was so nervous I hadn’t a clue what was going on. But I tried again, repeatedly. Gradually, I connected with both the music and the audience in a new way: I found that I could sense from their reactions how to form the music to keep their attention. The best effect was when I gave a brief introduction to tell them about Bach’s mandate for the musician: of conveying the “true content” of the music.
The setting of extreme intimacy around the clavichord was inspiring, but required the audience to be willing to do something extraordinary; to engage on a personal level. They also had to stand, which meant that I could only play one piece at a time (no more than 10 minutes): I would not be able to base my entire performance activity on this one setting. But might I be able to find other situations conducive to a similar mood, but that were less demonstrative for the audience?
At this concert, I challenged the audience to verbalise their musical experience and hence reflect on something that is usually intuitive. The feedback I gained offered new insights to guide the subsequent direction for the project.
As material for the discourse, I had chosen the clavier fantasia in Wq 63/6, composed in an extremely open, improvisational format. For this piece, which in itself had few singable elements, the poet H. W. Gerstenberg (1737-1823) wrote two song texts (Helm 1972, pp. 181-182), which he believed corresponded with the expressive content of the fantasia. Gerstenberg was somewhat younger than Bach, and during their earlier correspondence on verbalising the content of instrumental music – for example, by giving each work a suggestive title – Bach did not quite share Gerstenerg’s enthusiasm (Bach 1997, pp. 41-42). The two sets of vocal parts (respectively, Socrates’ personal struggle before he took hemlock, and a paraphrase of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” monologue) should thus be seen as Gerstenberg’s interpretation of the music, not Bach’s. That said, I still find it interesting as a subjective expression of the sensibilities cultivated in Northern Europe in the late 18th Century.
In order to give the audience a chance to familiarise themselves with the music, I started by playing the instrumental piece twice. As a free fantasia, the emotive content could be perceived in different ways, but I put my heart into playing it as a tragically and dramatically as I could.
This was then followed by a discussion of what the music expressed. The feedback was unanimous – the piece was nice, meditative and relaxing. In fairness, it should be noted that this was presumably the first time most members of this audience had heard the clavichord – and they were sitting at a distance from the instrument, in a laid-back pub-style atmosphere.
Next, the singer Ingvill Holter joined me on stage, and we performed the piece again; now not only with the lyrics sung in a dramatic manner, but also translated into Norwegian and projected on the wall behind us.
Now the reactions were intense: the audience not only felt that the lyrics were ill-suited to their impression of the music, but also that the music was ‘over the top’: overly woeful, depressing, overblown: “What’s with all this – Not und Tod und Schmertz…?!” Was that really what people were into back then? Overkill – excessive. One person commented that one listens differently to music accompanied by lyrics: That one then associates the musical expression with the lyrics, almost regardless of the musical composition – as an example, she referred to jazz, in which the instrumental music can take quite different directions, without us forgetting what the lyrics concern.
When I remarked that people in the 18th Century expressed themselves in more dramatic turns of phrase, and that we perhaps were out of the habit of ‘overkill’ today, I was reminded that hyperbole is more the rule than the exception in a lot of pop music. And when I repeated the same programme at a subsequent concert, I heard that if confronted with overblown lyrics in pop music, the advice was to not listen to them…
What surprised me most in this discussion with the audience was how I was failing to convey the emotiveness of the instrumental work. These were not shades of difference – the audience perception was the exact opposite of what I was seeking to convey. This was an important lesson for me in the design of my research fellowship project going forward. I wanted to find various means of bridge-building between performer/instrument and audiences – of musical outreach, of creating intimacy.
Feedback on lyrics that dominated the musical experience – excessively so perhaps – was also instructive. Using lyrics to dictate a true perception of what the music should convey is of course inadvisable in so far as it inhibits reflection and renders the experience two-dimensional.
These thoughts swayed me in the direction of intuitive approaches, in which the aim is to allow multiple modes of expression to perspectivise, rather than inhibit, each other.
3.2.2 Sanguineus and Melancholicus
At the concert performance of Sanguineus and Melancholicus I played this trio sonata (“Gespräch zwischen einem Sanguienus und Melancholicus”,Bach  2011 Wq. 161/1) several times with Baroque violinists Dag A. Eriksen and Stefan Lindvall. The sonata is full of footnotes to explain what the two characters are saying to each other.
Bach explains in the preface that this is intended as an aid to those ”who do not yet have sufficient insight into musical expression” (Bach  2011, “Vorbericht”). The argument of assisting the listener is not uncommon in such prefaces in terms of more technical matters (e.g. when writing out an embellishment to help those unable to improvise, Bach  1992, “Vorrede”), but in this case, the intended audience is tacitly those who have no understanding of music. Bach starts his preface by saying that he is “seeking to express something instrumentally that is more straightforward to achieve by song and words” (Bach  2011, “Vorbericht”). Perhaps he is addressing the discourse on whether instrumental music is imprecise and empty as opposed to vocal music which is more comprehensible, aided as it is by explanatory words?
The footnotes were translated into Norwegian and projected onto the back wall when they occurred in the music. We played the sonata with and without the words and asked the audience what effect the footnote explanation had on their appreciation of the music.
It became immediately clear that the information contained in the musical material became overly laboured when expressed in words. It took longer to read the explanations than it took to play the music even though the explanations were quite straightforward and superficial. This was our experience at the concert when the text in the footnotes was projected on the wall behind us. At times it was impossible to keep up, and any attempt to do so made it difficult to appreciate the music because of the effort of having to read.
There was not so much to discuss here. Although the volume of information was overwhelming, the content was not surprising and the language was neutral and objective. Much of it concerns interruption, ceding to another player, being in or out of unison (playing parallel or different themes). In addition, changes of mood – expressing joy (major, fast) or sadness (minor, slow), bursts of anger (sudden breaks).
Bach certainly demonstrates that the music is full of content, and that the literary medium falls short in seeking to convey it.
Indem ein Musikus nicht anders rühren kann, er sey dann selbst gerührt; so muß er nothwendig sich selbst in alle Affecten setzen können, welche er bey seinen Zuhörern erregen will; er giebt ihnen seine Empfindungen zu verstehen und bewegt sie solchergestalt am besten zur Mit-Empfindung. Bey matten und traurigen Stellen wird er matt und traurig. Man sieht und hört es ihm an. [...] Kaum, daß er einen stillt, so erregt er einen andern, folglich wechselt er beständig mit Leidenschaften ab. [...]
Daß alles dieses ohne die geringsten Geberden abgehen könne wird derjenige blos läugnen, welcher durch seine Unempfindlichkeit genöthigt ist, wie ein geschnitztes Bild vor dem Instrumente zu sitzen. So unanständig und schädlich heßliche Geberden sind: so nützlich sind die guten, indem sie unsern Absichten bey den Zuhörern zu Hülfe kommen(Bach 1992, s. 112-123).
My very great thanks to the many people who have contributed to my project: my two brilliant supervisors, Torleif Torgersen and Maria Bania. Ragnhild Gudbrandsen who helped me with the literary fiction. Beatrice Sandberg who helped me understand the older German texts. Signe Bakke, Davide Bertolini and Bjørn Andor Drage, who helped me record a CD. The talented (and undaunted) musicians who took part in the performance experiments, and the generous audiences. My esteemed colleagues in and outside of the early music scene at the Grieg Academy for their valued inputs. All who provided practical assistance – who helped me with text translations, moved chairs and clavichords, manned the text projector, printed the concert programmes.
I would also like to thank the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme, the University of Bergen and the Grieg Academy for housing and funding my project.
Not least, I should like to thank my exceptionally patient and insightful husband.
My heartfelt thanks to you all!
3.3.1 Around the clavichord
Since a musician cannot move others unless he is moved himself, he must be capable of personally embracing all the affects that he wishes to stir in his listeners. He lets them understand his sensibilities, and moves them thus, ideally, to empathise. In sombre and sad passages he grows sombre and sad. This may be seen and heard from his appearance and performance. … Barely has he stilled one, before he stirs another; such that his passions are in constant flux. …
Any claim that all this could be achieved without the least gesture, could only come from the prevaricator who is obliged by his own insensitivity to sit before his instrument like a carved image. How improper and harmful are ugly gestures: so useful are the good ones, in that they help the listeners [understand] our intentions.
(Bach  1992, pp. 112-123.)
This video of a presentation I gave to master’s students at the Grieg Academy in 2012 is one of a series of performances I gave with the audience standing closely around the clavichord. At a meeting with research fellows in my year, I had discovered the intense sense of communality that can arise when a group stands close together and shares an aesthetic experience.
The feedback from the student group in this video is representative of the response I had from these performances: standing this close makes it easier to hear the subtleties of the performance. The listener also sees more, and becomes aware of the physicality of delivery – some relate so intently to this activity that they almost feel as they were actually engaged in playing the instrument themselves.
As a performer, I also feel part of one great, living and breathing entity. In the best moments, I pick up on reactions in the group and can consciously play on them.
Sometimes something goes wrong, and the setting is against us. Some listeners reported that they felt uncomfortable, invaded and provoked by the setting. The audience is expected to be open to intimate, interactive communication in this setting. Not surprisingly, not all listeners will feel equally comfortable.
When bodies come into such proximity to each other, the body becomes a significant factor in the overall experience. The body as perceiving – as the sensory surface of perception; and as perceived – what happens in one’s own body will also be more apparent, and form part of the experience.
Out of all the experimental settings, this is the one that came the closest to the experience of direct, personal musical communication. It came the closest to how I interpret Bach’s description of musical Mit-Empfindung or empathy.
6.2 Other artistic impetus and inspiration
Three of the musicians who in each their way have inspired me directly in my studies of Bach’s music, and who in each their way have served as models in expressing “content” and “affect” have been Andrew Manze, my great-grandmother Ingebjørg Lothe (1898-1987), who was a pianist, and Sami artist TorgeirVassvik.
When I listen to Manze’s Baroque violin recordings, I find that he accentuates those musical structures that emphasise the expressive content, for example by colouring the chord progressions. I find his intention transparent, and I am inspired by the way he readily allows a single direction in the music to dominate: for example, when he has the solo violin voice entrain the orchestra from 1'50'' to 2'10'' in the first movement of the Concerto in A minor for Violin in his recordings of J.S. Bach’s violin concertos (Harmonia Mundi, 1997). Or makes the inverted sigh of the solo voice control the timing of the orchestra in the last movement, 2'08''-2'15''. He also has a very expansive sound palette, which he uses in a similar fashion. This may be heard, for example, in the second movement of the same concerto, notably in the passage 2'55''-4'30'', in which the tone colours the harmonics from fierce and proclamatory to deep and flautando.
I have aspired to use an equally diverse sound palette. Listen, for example, to the recordings of Fantasia Wq 59/6, especially from approx. 0’35’’ and Andante from Wq 55/6 (to the right). I have also been taken up with following the lines of the music all the way, even when it goes against the basic structures of rhythm and tempo, where I found these to be subordinate to the gesture. Listen, for example, to the opening movement of Sonata Wq 56/6: Here I let the last beat of the first two bars halt rather abruptly in order to accentuate the effect of the sudden piano. I debated with myself whether this piano notation is intended as an instruction for phrase closure, and thus should be executed more discreetly within the beat. However, I read the tenuto markings as rather drawing attention to them, and in the end I chose to make a point of them, in the belief that they emphasise the unstable character of the piece. They also have the effect of giving the long passage up to the double bar line a stronger, boosting effect.
My great-grandmother lived in Haugesund, Western Norway, but had been schooled by Nils Larsen, one of the leading tutors in Oslo, and in her youth had accompanied the ageing Nina Grieg. I know her playing from tape-reel recordings on which she is playing and singing at home. I am inspired by her appealing and bright, but authoritative style: the gestures and plasticity recall the style of playing familiar to me from early 20th Century recordings. I associate this with Bach’s description of the rounded, cantabile quality – as opposed to the “slavish delivery”.
When she plays Fjeldslåt (Mountain Dance) by Edvard Grieg (op. 19 no. 1) I register her use of rubato phrasing. This is especially evident in the singing passage starting at 1’29’’: She plays with great tempo variations over short passages. She typically accelerates the beginning of phrases, driving the phrase onwards, and closes it with a short ritardando, and then takes her time before the next phrase. She produces all these tempo variations with brevity and authority, but never abruptly or harshly. This is why I feel that it is never at the expense of the progression; on the contrary. I find that this technique brings out the structure well. Equally, the phrasing is not perceived as sentimental, only singing. The accompaniment figures around the melody part acquire a distinctly separate role: they do not sing, but give colour. The dotted notes are crisp but not accented. To me, they add sparkle to the melody, rather than obstruct it.
Obviously, Ingerbjørg Lothe plays a much later repertoire, in a highly idiomatic piano style and on a very different instrument to that used by Emanuel Bach. But I still find her way of building up singing phrasing applicable. Listen, for example, to my recording of the "Allegretto" from Fantasia Wq 59/6. Although the texture around the melody is much simpler in Bach than in Grieg, I do start and end the phrases in somewhat the same manner.
Torgeir Vassvik combines traditional Sami yoik and Sami drum with Tuvan overtone singing into something resembling musically induced trance. (See, for example, the clip on Youtube.com from the opening of a Norske Grafikere exhibition of 1 December 2012.) Something about the unpolished, personal style resonates with me, and I should like to be able to express myself with the same immediacy.
For me, the music of Emanuel Bach is as exalting and overwhelming as the intense primal expression I experience in listening to Vassvik. And this is the thrill I aspire to convey to my own listeners. This is why I become so frustrated when listeners tell me that they 'hear' lace and olden days: they have only heard the outer layer of the musical texture – the ornaments on the surface, like a fiery speech delivered with a courteous demeanour.
Vassvik's music needs neither ornament, nor podium. I have sought ways of playing that bring out the innermost layer of Emanuel Bach's music, without the surface getting in the way – I have tried to let the surface be just surface. I think perhaps I do this best in the last movement of Sonata Wq 59/1, but this is my subjective opinion, and difficult to argue a case for. At times, I have felt like leaping up in the middle of a piece to roar: How far do I have to go to reveal the existential side of the music? How far can I go before what I communicate actually becomes something different than the music I originally sought to get across to the audience? I find that the idiomatic quality of the music (it is difficult to arrange convincingly for another instrument) makes this limit rather tight. Against that, I find that the clavichord as an instrument offers scope for experimentation with both timbre and timing, which I believe suits the music well. Listen, for example, to Andante from Wq 55/6. again.
These three are consequently among the musicians that I have used in guiding my work on Bach’s music, and are among those I believe realise qualities that are important in the music and to which Bach attaches importance in Versuch. Whether they realise those qualities in the way Bach intended is not the point: they realise them in their own way, which is what matters most to me.
All musicians, in each new generation, have to find their raison-d’être, their motivation for making music matter. In this way, musicality evolves as part of human evolution. My great-grandmother was exactly 80 years older than I. She inhabited another world – one in which she was scarcely permitted, as a woman, to play in public. She could remember when electric light came to her town. She played the same pieces that are still taught at the conservatory today – Chopin, Schumann, Grieg, Brahms – but with fundamentally different phrasing. Yet I am told that my style of playing resembles hers.
Bach was 300 years older than my second-eldest son. He died just before the French Revolution, and wrapped his sheet music and books in oilcloth to prevent them from being destroyed by rain in a mail coach (Bach 1997, p. 4, 49 and 57). He must have had a fundamentally different notion of many aspects of the human existence. Differences in human attitudes are likely to have produced different attitudes to musical delivery.
3.2 Track: Talking about music
The superficial concert
I was frustrated by how superficial concert-giving can be. So much time we musicians spend in advance in understanding the music! Understanding its background, the subtleties of style, translating and understanding the nuances of the words in vocal music – and how little of this we could actually convey during the concert, the usual practice being to play each piece just once, as well as possible. The musicians may offer a verbal introduction – but certainly not for too long, or translations (into Norwegian) might be printed in the programme – although they always end up as small print at the back: to follow this, the audience will have to peer at it up close, until they give up trying to follow the words so they have a chance to listen to what the musicians are doing.
Was there a way of drawing the audience in, by engaging them better? A way of letting them hear more of the processes that had preceded the performance: both textual information and the fact that a single concert performance (“as masterfully as possible”) underconveys that this is just one possible version; each time I play this piece, it’s going to be different: because the music is not static, but a stream of spontaneous choices.
These thoughts inspired two concert programmes:Tandeleier and Sanguineus und Melancholicus. The idea was to repeat the same piece several times to familiarise the audience with the music and demonstrate that one performance only represents one of many possible versions. But I also wanted to talk to the audience to hear how their perceptions of the music changed along the way. I had chosen pieces that could be presented as purely instrumental versions, but which could also be accompanied by a text in order to achieve a progression. The texts were translated into Norwegian and projected on the wall behind the performers, in order to be immediately legible and accessible. In Tandeleier, the lyrics were poetic, but in Sanguineus und Melancholicus more prosaic. This spurred more intense discussion in Tandeleier, as the lyrics were more determinative for the audience experience. I had to repeat this concert several times to understand the dynamics that arose.
During my work on Tandeleier, I delivered a project presentation at the Grieg Research School, an interdisciplinary research institution for PhD music-related subjects. Here I took questions about the power balance in the Tandeleier concerts: by assuming control over the situation, I would also be controlling the audience experience. As such, these settings were less open than I had envisaged: I was seeking an audience response to the material, but the sequence and the ‘shock value’ of the material, especially in Tandeleier, may actually have had the effect of distancing them from appreciation of the music itself. This was difficult to avoid: because in order to keep the structure under control, I was forced to plan a certain sequence and what I wanted to discuss. Moreover, it took some effort for me to ‘thaw’ the audience and encourage them to respond with more than monosyllables.
That said, these concerts generated productive discussions. I am immensely grateful to the audience that offered their reactions and opinions. I took the audience feedback on board, and some of the opinions influenced development of the project going forward.
Listening example: Fjeldslåt op. 19 no. 1 by E. Grieg. Played by my great-grandmother, Ingebjørg Lothe
3.4 Track: Literary fiction
In parallel with my performance experiments, I sought to enhance my understanding of the music itself. To do so, I played a great deal of music (both a wide repertoire, and many times) to familiarise myself with the music. If I had any queries concerning the musical notation, I was usually able to find the answer either in Emanuel Bach’s keyboard treatise, or by analogy with parallel passages in another repertoire. I generally found gestures and directions relatively straightforward to realise, as the music of Emanuel Bach is extremely self-evident. But getting the sentences to connect in a unified narrative was challenging at times, since the musical forms are sometimes very lengthy, especially in longer compositions such as rondos and fantasias. I was constantly looking for models for understanding these forms in order to justify breaks and digressions as I played.
I sensed that declamation was at work here, and thus resorted to the familiar metaphor of language. In early music, music and rhetoric are regarded as closely related means of expression. As a student of the harpsichord, I had heard time and time again how a speech is composed of an introduction, argument and counter-argument (asserted solely for the purpose of crushing it afterwards) in order to convince us that Baroque music was constructed in the same way (as described, for example, in “Rhetoric and Music”, Wilson 2017). The problem was, however, that Emanuel Bach did not adhere to this elementary pattern. He was too advanced for this formulism. I could identify no pattern whatsoever. Was the sentimentalist culture accompanied by a unique theory of rhetoric? Or was rhetoric falling out of favour as a paradigm? To me, at any rate, the music seemed to be declamatory.
I got in touch with my friend Martin Wåhlberg, a Baroque cellist with whom I had played for many years, and who is also an expert in 18th-century French literature, to hear if he had any ideas for where I could start. He pointed me to both academic works and novels: he advised me to read I Retorikkens Hage by Andersen and The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture by Goring, and also Le Neveu de Rameau by Diderot, as exemplifying a contemporary monologue in the sentimental style.
I read. In academic works, I read ABOUT rhetoric – about theory and history. But also about the politics and social and power structures with which sentimentalism was possibly linked or even evolved from. But I found little to go on when it came to identifying a specific, rhetorical paradigm for the structures in Emanuel Bach’s music. Goring describes how, in the latter half of 18th-century England, greater emphasis was placed on declamation, on emotionally stirring delivery of sermons and other religious oratory, (Goring 2005, pp. 38-39) a topic addressed at length by Bach himself in the chapter ”Vom Vortrage”(Bach  1992 from p. 115). I also read Van Elferen’s article which describes how the ability to move someone to tears in appropriate social contexts, for example, at public concerts, was regarded as a mark of a compassionate, virtuous soul (Van Elferen 2007, p. 77). The act of collective weeping out of compassion, but also in a collective experience of literature or music, represented participation in a social context, which was an important facet of the prevailing sentimentalist culture (Van Elferen 2007, pp. 81-83).
But in addition to academic literature examining this phenomenon, I felt a need to find artistic exemplars: I wanted a more diverse range of material to relate to, which led me to sentimental literature in order to understand this culture from several angles. I was looking for sensuous knowledge in artistic expression: I wanted to engage in the experience of this sensitivity so that I might really believe in it when I came to mediate the music to audiences.
And so I got started. I’ve always been an avid reader of novels, so this suited me no end.
It was overwhelming to actually take on board the expression of sensitivity in fiction influenced by the sentimental culture; the novels about Pamela and Clarissa (Richardson  2009 and  2009), A sentimental journey and the Tristram Shandy novels (Sterne  2015 and [1759-’67] 2008), not to mention my sortie into Gothic novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho (Radcliffe  2009) and the Sturm und Drang novel Werther (Goethe  1999).
Faced with all the alien elements of these works, it is easy to shrug one’s shoulders and distance oneself from their rampant emotionality: Pamela’s despair that she would be lost if she were raped by the master of the house. Yorick’s intense encounters with the most ordinary, but immensely fascinating women. Werther and his dramatic mood swings. But they portray a fascinating, colourful world! One that makes contemporary society appear hopelessly pragmatic and parochial.
I confined myself inside this bubble of 18th-century fictional protagonists for a month, reading at any available moment throughout the day. I couldn’t cope for longer than that in this hypersentimental world. But the fact of having experienced it, of having viewed the world through their eyes, gave me an emotional ballast to mobilise musically. Obviously, I am not contending that everyone in the 18th Century led the life of a fictional protagonist, in a kind of hypersentimental bubble. That would have been a fragile society. But by immersing myself in a diverse range of artistic styles from the same culture, I was seeking to gain a larger range of experiential angles of approach to that culture. I was on a quest for this expression of sentimentalism as representing something close and familiar – in order to express myself credibly in this language.
Besides taking on board the hypersentimental world I found in literature, I was readily fascinated by structural parallels. In particular, I found that Sterne’s style was very reminiscent of Bach’s. In order to share this experience of the two parallel modes of expression with an audience, I designed concerts in which a literary text and pieces of music were juxtaposed.
I experienced a similar emotional familiarisation with Emanuel Bach’s persona on reading what I could of his own writings (correspondence (Bach 1997)), the autobiographical sketch (in Bach 1988: Commentary volume) and, obviously, Versuch(Bach [1753 and ’62] 1992)) and what his contemporaries wrote about him (Wiermann 2000). The outcome of this was a strong sense of knowing Bach personally, as if he were someone I spent time with every day (and perhaps with no little fascination for him). The aim was obviously to get closer and to understand better, but this emotional involvement was not part of the ‘quest’. This is difficult to avoid in intense and sustained study of the same composer, and I suspect that I am not alone in this experience. Yet it is scarcely mentioned; all I have found on the topic was an article on the emotional attachment of amateur choristers to Johann Sebastian Bach as a person (Einarsdóttir 2015). I find this to be an interesting phenomenon, especially because I acknowledge that it is tempting to base artistic choices on the emotional conviction that “I know what you REALLY intended, Emanuel!” Intuitive, artistic choices informed by a familiarity with the object of study are surely not misguided. This was why I chose to read out passages from a personal diary I kept of reflections on this phenomenon, at the same concerts at which I incorporated literary fiction.
3.1.2 The Hanseatic Museum
Inside the Hanseatic Museum I was playing to an audience actively prepared for a cultural experience. They were not casual visitors: they had purchased a ticket and were intent on an experience; to learn something. They had already had their senses sharpened by the authentic whiff of a whole salt cod. But what they didn’t know was that the exhibition included a live performer – they were not prepared to engage in a musical experience.
On the whole, I found it far easier to perform at the museum than in the open air at Bryggen. I connected with the audience, and a great many people seemed to be interested and curious about the music and the instrument.
And in this setting I also registered a greater difference in audience contact when I changed my appearance. The biggest difference in casual dress versus Baroque costume and the least difference with versus without the poster proclaiming “this is an arts project”:
The casual-dress setting was the most challenging. This made my role difficult to understand – in addition to the fact that I was scarcely visible in the dimly-lit surroundings.
When I wore my Baroque costume, the distance to the public was minimal. I experienced scarcely any reluctance to engaging in contact with me; presumably, the costume meant that I was perceived as a feature of the museum, intended for visitors to make use of. At the same time, the radiant colours of the costume made me visible and exotic. Thus dressed, with no poster, I almost found the setting too much at close-quarters – I felt taken for granted, as just any-old exotic ‘feature’. When the poster went up, I felt I gained a bit more respect – more of what I was accustomed to from formal concerts, perhaps.
But the observer spotted other aspects: in the Baroque costume, with no poster, outreach was the best – those I connected with through the costume were drawn into the music and what I was seeking to communicate. When I had finished playing, the musical experience now mattered more – the costume was just part of the background setting. When the poster went up, the distance increased – I certainly gained more respect, but did not engage people as closely.
And here is the rub: what form of closeness am I aiming for? Is it too close if I am rendered ‘harmless’, as a kind of museum prop? Was the music, or the experience of it, reduced by this disinhibition? Meaning, if it is no longer presented as art, but as illustration or entertainment. After all, art asks questions, addresses difficult issues.
Conversely: presenting something that I, in another context, would have categorised as ‘art music’ in a setting devoid of art presentation presumably poses more questions than the same music performed in a conventional classical-music setting?
Both the curators and I were pleased with the outcome. I have been back on several occasions; in costume, with no poster. On these occasions, I enjoyed the connection with the audience, and did not feel any lack of respect.
In these subsequent performances, I experimented with sung accompaniment – such as was the custom to accompany oneself by singing while playing, at least in my great-grandmother’s time: I translated a song from the Gellert Odes (”Prüfung am Abend” Wq 194/7) into Norwegian; a strict, self-searching evensong. Performed after dark in the evening, the effect at the Museum was intense and intimate, bordering on invasive. I am not a trained singer, and my unpolished voice accentuated my bodily presence. Here, I took it to the limit – and perhaps went over the limit – of how close we want to get to each other in sharing a musical experience.
Worinn aber besteht der gute Vortrag? in nichts anderem als der Fertigkeit, musikalische Gedanken nach ihrem wahren Inhalte und Affecte singend oder spielend dem Gehöre empfindlich zu machen (Bach 1992, s. 117).
2.1 Questions concerning musical empathy
In what, then, does good delivery consist? In nothing other than the capacity for making the ear sensitive to the true content and affects of musical thoughts, by playing or singing.
(Bach  1992, p. 117.) All quotations from the clavier treatise are translated by the author, in collaboration with Semantix.
This is Emanuel Bach’s straightforward description of the musician’s prime obligation. To render in sound the true content of a piece of music. And who would disagree? Music speaks to us; if it fails to, it is empty and meaningless.
Initially, this seemed a given for me – because this was always my ‘mission’ as a practical musician.
But I had never personally referred to the concept of “the true content”. The notion that there might be only one correct interpretation of what a piece of music concerns? Is this really what Bach means? What hope did I have of working that out? And how would I know if my conclusion was correct? I have discussed these questions at length here.
Then it was a question of making the ear sensitive to this content, of making it 'hearable'. The music in itself is daring in its composition – the later the repertoire, the further Bach goes in letting expression govern form. The musical language had crystallised out more, the musical gestures had broken with the earlier safe Baroque fluidity. I regard this as an immensely powerful and eloquent style: not only my ear, but my entire sensory system reacts both to the sound, in fact, to merely looking at the score. To the whole of the physical, exalted, sensory experience of playing such music.
But of course it is not only my own ears that are to be made sensitive. As a professional musician, I have to be able to impart an experience to those who are listening – to the audience. Bach describes an empathic process by which the performer of a piece of music adopts the same emotions as the composer felt when he wrote the piece. By personally being audibly and visibly affected by these emotions in the musical delivery, the performer stirs empathy in the audience (Bach  2011, p. 122). These demands for performer and audience empathy appear to have been meant literally, and were typical of the Empfindsamkeit culture in which Bach was a notable participant, in the latter half of the 18th century (Bania & Skowroneck, forthcoming).
A number of encounters made me question whether I could still have any confidence that this musical empathy, which I had once taken for granted, was something I could actually elicit in the listener. It must be said: I was playing music that was more or less unknown to most of my audiences in Bergen, Norway: not only the actual works, but the genre and even the instrument were unfamiliar to most of them. This did not make it easier to achieve a shared musical sensitivity.
A solo clavichord concert – a frustrating, private affair
I gave a solo concert on the clavichord: one piece after the other, with applause and bowing in between. I found it very difficult to sense when I was connecting with the audience. Firstly because every single piece of music is so dense – a whole world unto itself! And this was extremely difficult to convey: to let each piece speak for itself – come into its own.
Secondly, I was not quite happy with the setup: the mere fact of having to play clavichord for a traditional concert audience (however small) seated respectfully and comfortably in the auditorium. The distance between the instrument and the listener is far too great. The sound simply evaporates before it can reach their ears.
I also found the respectful distance between the audience and the performer unfortunate, as it allowed all parties to withdraw into their safe and comfortable bubble. This was especially problematic for the clavichord, which is not designed to communicate across anything like such distances. The on-stage activity – the musical performance – became a private affair, exclusive to the performer (me).
How could I overcome these problems? Firstly, I would have to bridge the gap – the physical and formal distance between the instrument and all those attentive ears. Secondly, to introduce each individual piece as a discrete, unique, sensory experience – a choice delicacy? How could I get closer to the audience – physically and experientially?
Engaging with listeners off-stage
I signed up as a musician with Bergen International Festival to give ad hoc performances at unannounced venues around town. I played at restaurants, in a hotel reception, and in the foyer of the Edvard Grieg Museum. I played single pieces rather than whole concerts. Here, I found that people’s expectations of me, and hence also my contact with the audience, changed radically depending on the setting I was playing in: at the restaurant, I was the musical entertainer who accompanied the fine dining (who played too faintly, even with amplification); in the hotel reception, I was background ambience; at the museum I became a live exhibit that could take questions.
But at all these venues, I found it refreshing to escape the formalities of the conventional concert! The chance to meet listeners who were not intending to “go to a concert” and therefore did not behave like conventional concert-goers: people were a lot more forthright in their reactions when I was not perched on a stage. Some of them just walked on by – variously with expressions of scepticism or curiosity. Some stopped – at the museum, I was overwhelmed by a group of enthusiastic ladies, who had so many questions I hardly had the chance to play. At the restaurants, I felt that I was either off-putting (hair-in-soup style), or I was at the receiving end of pub-style “go on, play us another!” heckling.
In that sense, the formal distance to the audience was easily bridged – all I had to do was step off the stage. But how much music was I getting across in this way? Because listening to music as complex and unfamiliar as Emanuel Bach’s requires a fair amount of concentration. The conventional concert audience is ready to concentrate on the performance; it is prepared for a musical experience, but I wanted to find a situation that could at the same time retain this informal closeness.
3.1 Track: Experimenting with the concert setting
What was I aiming for?
I wanted a better performance setting for communicating the music the way I wanted. But what form of communication was I actually aspiring to? I was inspired by Emanuel Bach’s concept of empathy – “Mit-Empfindung” – of which he writes in Versuch (read the quotation here) – that the musician must be capable of eliciting the same mood in his audience, by experiencing the music together. But what setting would be most conducive to facilitating this musical empathy?
I have experienced profound shared feeling for a piece of music with close friends who are also fellow musicians: we have every basis for this commonality of music appreciation: the same professional background for understanding the music, and are moved by and enthuse jointly in, the same passages. How could I bring an element of this thrill to the audiences who attended my performances?
This combination of communal appreciation, of sharing something intimate and personal is not quite so straightforward to achieve with persons unknown or, at least, less known to me, and who may not have heard much music of this genre before.
The audience attends with a set of expectations depending on the context: classical music is art, and the conventions surrounding the classical concert serve to frame it. Classical music performed in other contexts might be for performance art, or might be busking, with a cap for coins. All of these conventions give the audience cues for understanding what is taking place, and how they should be listening.
I wanted to go further in exploring the phenomenon of listeners who were not expecting to attend a concert in order to avoid the formal distance of the conventional classical concert. Would I be able to find a context in which the audience was suitably prepared for listening attentively, but without being constrained by respectful concert-distance?
I was not aiming to re-enact an 18th-century performance. I was seeking a specific attribute in the communication between the performer and the audience: not only in terms of my actions and choices as a musician, but just as much in terms of audience response.
How far can I reach out?
I did not seek out completely unprepared audiences – I didn’t leap out of a cupboard or play in lavatories. I didn’t even play at the railway station: I was confident that completely unprepared listeners would be too difficult to engage. I was looking for an ideal point in between: where listeners were sufficiently open to an experience, but without donning a respectful ‘concert mask’.
The Hanseatic Museum setting was the more successful of the two. When I swept in as part of the exhibition (in my Baroque costume but with no poster advertising my appearance as part of an arts project) here, I achieved direct contact with the audience, which, with a bit of luck, could be carried over into concentration on what I was playing. I found these situations to be excellent for music outreach to the public. However, people only gathered to listen for short spells, as they were in transit through the exhibition. So if they were uninterested, they simply passed right by. This has a way of sharpening one’s concentration when performing.
1.1 Sense and Sensibility
– performing music by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Engaging in the complex and expressive music of Bach; on the clavichord, which is as intense and nuanced as it is delicate and soft in volume; aspiring to a musical empathy in which the performer and the listener jointly experience the true content and emotion of the music – spurs a craving for closeness and intimacy.
But how close can we get? How close do we want to get?
Close enough to hear the instrument. Close enough to understand what the music is telling us – to follow all the wonderful diversions – in close up. Deepest sincerity. Tender caresses. The rush of joy. The thought that could not be – could… be… – …
But then the floor creaks. Someone turns round. I can’t hear it. Why is she playing so faintly? I don’t understand it. All those notes. So full on the whole time! So, who was that guy anyway – he lived a long time ago, right?
These are the reflections in Ingrid E. Hagen’s research fellowship project. Based on my personal encounters with the music of Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) and his concepts of musical empathy, I worked on public mediation of his music, mainly on the clavichord. I have explored the tension that exists between intimacy and distance – and have experimented with different means of achieving that intimacy, and registered the resulting resistance to these experiments.
I have reached out to people outside of the conventional concert setting, on a quest for the intimate interaction in the interests of empathic, shared experience of the music. I have performed Bach's music in the open air, at museums, for people who were not expecting to experience live music. I have investigated relationships between music and language; structural, stylistic and contextualising. Both in order to improve my own understanding and artistic empathy with the subject matter, and to investigate the ways in which different means of communicating and their use in musical mediation can influence experiences in various ways.
Through this process, I became aware of the great extent to which different concert formats or other modes of presentation influence what audiences listen to in the music, and what they gain from it.
I have worked intensively on a selection of Bach's keyboard music, and recorded the CD für Kenner und Liebhaber. Together with the final concert in November 2016, the CD represented the artistic results of my research fellowship.
My professional background is in Historically Informed Performance (HIP), in which the musician seeks to perform a historical repertoire in accordance with what is known about performance practices from the same period and cultural community as the repertoire was composed in (as described in “Early Music”, Haskell 2017). This approach, which alternates between reading period sources and practical experiments, was important for me in this project too, because it produces a creative dynamic of open questions. By gaining greater insights into the context in which the music was placed, I aspire to gain a stronger sense of empathy and intimacy with the material and can consequently play it with greater conviction.
However, this increased knowledgeability combined with greater empathy and intimacy with the material cuts both ways: the more I learn, the more questions I have. The more I identify with Emanuel Bach and his era, the clearer it becomes to me how long it is since he lived, and how much the world has changed over the intervening centuries: the more I strive to get close, the more distanced I find myself.
My artistic method has been a reflexive process in which questions are addressed in experiments, articulated in a dialogue with the study material, be it musical, literary or artistic experience, in a constant quest for intimacy; for getting closer. I organised this non-linear approach in the form of 'tracks', which allowed me to address multiple questions in parallel and as they intersected along the way. I chose to organise my exposition along the same lines.
Should the reader desire an overview, a conventionally structured table of contents is available to download below.
Alternatively, the idea is for readers to feel free to read the texts and watch the project’s videos in any order. I have marked out tracks tracing my process. Meta-level thoughts are compiled in longer texts at the periphery of the exposition, with links that interconnect various components of the material.
For a general overview, use the zoom function in your browser: command +/-/0 on a MAC, control +/-/0 on a PC. You can also display a navigation feature and a table of contents by hovering your mouse cursor at the top-left of the screen.
The exposition was created for a screen resolution of 1280 x 800. If the videos don’t fit on your screen, links are provided to Vimeo under each video where you can enable a full-screen view. Pdf-files may not download in all web-browsers, but should work with Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer.
My research fellowship was undertaken at the Grieg Academy, Institute of Music, under the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme and was funded by the University of Bergen.
My supervisors were Professor Torleif Torgersen of the Grieg Academy, and Professor Maria Bania of the University College of Theatre and Music, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
3.4.1 Concerts and novels
This video shows clips from two different concerts conceptualised by juxtaposing keyboard music from the collections of Clavier Sonaten für Kenner und Liebhaber (1779-1787) with excerpts from the Laurence Sterne novel A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768).
Bach and Sterne
The first version of the concert focused exclusively on combining a Kenner und Liebhaber keyboard piece with excerpts from A Sentimental Journey. Curiously, I found that Bach’s keyboard sonatas and Sterne’s novel not only shared the same theme, but even expressed themselves in similar language. This became obvious when the two were juxtaposed: long sentences, built up from shorter, irregular phrases. Rapid shifts in rhythm and style, a fondness for detail and a tendency to digress into a series of associations, gravity offset by wit to the point that the two became indistinguishable.
I also found that the literature unexpectedly and refreshingly framed the music in its time: on the one hand, the literature drew us into the human aspects of the plot. On the other hand, the narrative is so obviously set in the remote past that this has a distancing effect. When the music expresses itself in parallel with the literature, the music is experienced in the same way: it has affinities with the absorbing narrative, but is at the same time alienating in its remoteness in time and culture.
When I came to select excerpts from the novel, I was rather more taken up with the language and mood than the plot. I wanted to convey the hypersensitive, almost hypochondriacally self-scrutinising protagonist, and the soliloquy that I perceive in Bach's music. However, in the interests of the audience's perception of continuity through the concert, I chose to use excerpts that permitted a certain train of events to be followed: from the moment in which the protagonist finds himself hand in hand with an unknown lady, until she, after repeated situations of misunderstood courtesy, is alone with him in a carriage. In the novel, this thread in the narrative is interleaved with others. The most significant of these is the encounter with a monk begging for donations: he is initially brusquely rejected by the protagonist, who then, after a crisis of conscience, gives him his valuable snuff-box. These two storylines are interleaved by means of musings and associations. By using only one of these storylines, I would be forfeiting the leaping digressions of the novel. On the other hand, I hoped that the role of the other storyline would be picked up and continued by the music.
My choice of music to combine with these texts was made intuitively. I was aiming mainly for mood, and steered away from thoughts of how the music and the narratives were to 'explain' each other. The exception is where the lady “walk’d musing on one side” (from ca. 5'05'' in the video). Here, I caved in to the temptation of using the allegretto theme from Fantasia in C Major (Wq 59/6). And yet, when the two modes of expression were combined, I found that they still coloured each other: the music is understood in the light of the preceding text; the text in the light of the music I have in my ears. In this way, endless combinations of text and music might have a unifying effect; their elements being imbued with only a slightly different value depending on what they were combined with.
To emphasise the associative, densely interleaved relationship between the text and the music, at times, I chose not to use whole chapters or pieces of music, but instead had literary fragments and musical fragments of pieces comment on each other.
One unexpected bonus of this concert was a third parallel, which arose from the textile artworks Over/Under/Over on show at the gallery: here, the artist Kristina Aas had explored the dichotomy between surface and content – which is analogous with the dichotomy between historical distance and the human factor in this concert programme.
when the songs behind
we can join the playing too
(Søholt 2012, p. 47)
The next version of the concert was elaborated on with the assistance of Ragnhild Gudbrandsen, actress at Den Nationale Scene (The National Stage, Bergen): following my initial experience, I felt I needed guidance: how to model a text to be read aloud? Would this insight translate into a style of ‘monological’ music? In addition, I wanted to open up the setting, taking it from the intense, historicising duality of only one layer of text and one layer of music, and bring it closer both to myself and my era. To achieve this, I used poetry by my former fellow student Are Frode Søholt and extracts from my own project diary.
I found that poetry introduced a meta-level to the concert in reflections on the adoption of historic material in our era. The poems are intensely sensitive in a pared-down, modern sense, and in some subtle way also comment on my diary entries.
The diary excerpts portray my subjective experience of identifying personally with Emanuel Bach’s persona. I am obviously perfectly well aware that I can – in reality –know nothing of Emanuel Bach’s persona from analysing his music and correspondence. And yet my work has given me a very clear impression of him. This identification process felt important for the artistic project – without this ‘dream’, my work would be impersonal. Without identifying with the composer, my performance would be cold.
For the concerts combined with literature, it was important to me not to explain what I was doing, and rather to encourage independent inquiry in the audience. This is because I am fascinated by the questions that arise in my own experiences of the material, and seek to inspire the same in others. Equally, I did not inquire into their experiences, except on one occasion, when I showed a video recording from a concert to a group of masters' degree students at the Grieg Academy.
This means that I know less about how the audience perceived this concert setting than I do about the earlier settings in which I discussed such matters at length with audiences. However, it is my impression that this concert was difficult for the audience to understand because the relationship between the various texts and the music was not predefined but open. This became increasingly evident, the more elements I incorporated in the concerts. The problem from the “Talking about music” track had been reversed: now, the texts were asking questions instead of trying to provide answers. They were liberating the experience as opposed to compartmentalising it.
3.1.1 Bryggen – an open-air historic setting
Bryggen in Bergen, a UNESCO World Heritage site, consists of the old Hanseatic wharf and buildings, now one of the most popular attractions in Norway. For Norwegians and foreign tourists alike, aside from the ‘olde worlde’ buildings and quay, the district has appeal for its shops, cafés and restaurants. Easy-going, laid-back and exotic. Not somewhere the casual visitor expects to be met with any demands, but a happening destination that inspires wonder and amazement.
I found it very challenging to play for the public here on the historic waterfront. Perhaps partly because I couldn’t see what was happening behind me – I had my back to it all. I had no way of knowing if anyone was taking any interest, or if anyone was listening. In fact, some of them were! But most of the passers-by look very unsure of the situation. They didn’t understand what my intention was, or what was expected of them. There was no busker’s hat for coins.
I felt much better when I donned my Baroque costume. I felt more visible, more distinctive, and ‘in character’ for the 18th-century location. But as I watch the video now, I can’t claim that there is much difference in the audience reaction. The subtleties I sense could just as well come from my own experience.
The poster did not make much difference either. Whether it made the situation more or less confusing for the public was perhaps individual. The passers-by were, after all, warned by small posters that they were being filmed. These posters presumably had as great impact on public perceptions as the larger poster.
I experienced this setting as being borderline for my capacity for realising any musical outreach to the public.
2.2 Why the clavichord?
When I embarked on the performance component in advance of the project proper, it soon became clear to me that the clavichord (which I had just acquired – for the project) was the instrument that made most sense to play Emanuel Bach’s solo keyboard music on. As the project progressed, I ended up playing the entire solo repertoire on the clavichord. Only when I was playing chamber music did I use the harpsichord or piano in order to counterbalance the volume of the other instruments.
So what are the merits of the clavichord for this repertoire? Firstly, its immense range of nuance in terms of both volume and timbre. This is important for the ability to express rapid mood transitions in the music where a single note or two or three notes merit their own colour. In addition, the finger is in direct mechanical contact with the string as long as it is sounding – not as in a harpsichord or piano mechanism, where the string is struck and then sounds freely until damped. The clavichord requires the player to maintain constant pressure on the key to sustain the note. This is demanding, but also makes it possible to modify the tone while the note is still sounding: the player can increase and then diminish the pressure to produce a messa di voce effect by applying sustained pressure, or can simply make the note sound for longer, if done discreetly. Excessive force will be at the expense of intonation (pitch increases as the string is stretched) and the effect on sound quality will be jarring. Bach describes a similar effect as portato in Versuch (Bach  1992, p. 126). Lastly, there is the clavichord’s special vibrato (German: Bebung), again, as described by Bach in Versuch (Bach  1992, p. 126).
All of these effects are highly expressive – subtle changes in timbre from one note to the next. And then the sensitivity of the clavichord – any lack of tender loving care, and it protests: it becomes incensed! The notes are choked; they hack and cough. A whining and a screeching. Play too forcefully, and the whole instrument is audibly pushed to the limit of its tolerances. This limit, in which the sound collapses under the strain, is not something I could ever provoke on a modern piano. No way! But the proximity of this impending limitation can be worked to extend the range of expressiveness, in that I can play on the instrument’s reaction, taking it to the brink. I like these awkward squeaking noises, and also the sound of the clavichord when played so faintly as to be virtually inaudible. A bold repertoire complements bold effects. That said, I do try to limit my use of the most extreme effects, for so as not to lessen their impact.
Bach writes that the clavichord is best suited to solo music, presumably as well as the fortepiano, because it can produce the vibrato and portato effects, in Versuch (Bach  1992, pp. 8-9).
My clavichord was built by Thomas Glück, based on Austrian models from the late 18th Century. I have also had access to a copy of a fortepiano by Walter from 1795 (meaning rather too modern for Bach, because of its slightly more advanced mechanics). But also a selection of harpsichords – both my own Italian one and several different makes at the Grieg Academy.
On the harpsichord, I am unable to achieve rapid mood modulations. I am also able to produce far more nuances on the clavichord than on the fortepiano. The portato effects not least are important to me, and their timbre.
3.1.4 Reflections on my role as a musician
Emanuel Bach’s keyboard music was not written for grand concert halls. But for a quite different purpose: for solitary appreciation or in small social gatherings. In the same way that I might use my home stereo or play music on my mobile phone. Before the advent of recording technology, music was not available to be heard unless one played it oneself, or was near someone who played. Public concerts were a relatively new phenomenon in the 1700s, and far from the usual setting for music appreciation. Playing music for and with each other was a social activity.
If I play Emanuel Bach’s music on a classical concert stage (large or small) now, I sense that the expectations surrounding this setting mean that I am perceived as an interpreter and artiste in a Romantic sense – which is contrary to what I want to communicate with the music.
If he has anything positive to say about the performing musician in his clavier school, Bach typically refers to him as ”Clavierist”(Bach  1992, e.g. p. 6) or “Clavierspieler”(e.g. p. 1), in a very few instances as “Meister” (p. 52) or “Musicus” (p. 6) – “keyboardist”, “keyboard player”, “master” and “musician”. In reference to the music, he likes to use words such as “Claviersachen” - “clavier things” (e.g. pp. 2-3).
What then is my role as a performer of music by Emanuel Bach in this day and age? I can’t just skip over everything that has happened since Bach’s time. As a performing musician of our time, I am an artiste or artist. Even if I chose to refer to myself as a “non-artist”, this would still be an artistic construct. But in this very role of artiste I am taking responsibility for artistic expression, in that I am deciding in what context I find it meaningful to place it.
3.1.3 Birthday-party entertainment
Another experiment: in this case a non-public performance setting: the anniversary of the birth of Emanuel Bach was celebrated with coffee, cake and clavichord music in the meeting room by the canteen at the Grieg Academy. Students and tutors were invited to attend to chat and play clavichord for each other. (Top-left: Daniel T. Gundersen)
It soon became obvious that the clavichord is too faint in volume to compete with the noise of a lively social gathering. An enjoyable event, but more social than musical!
As the videos of the concerts and the audiences form part of an artistic work rather than a research project, they are exempt from the statutory data privacy requirements enforced by NSD - Norwegian Centre for Research Data. The videos are, however, subject to Norwegian privacy law in the Personal Data Act. On the advice of NSD and consultations with fellow musicians, the following policies were adhered to for all instances of filming and publishing: where passers-by were filmed, posters were displayed in Norwegian and English advising the general public of the filming at the entrance to the area/interior, with contact details and details of how to opt out of being caught on camera.
Where concerts were filmed, this was notified in the form of posters at the venue entrance together with contact information for anyone wishing to opt out. The same notice was printed in the event programme. On some occasions, the filming was also notified from the stage at the start of the concert.
Where photos or videos of a concert audience were published, written consent to such releases was obtained from all individuals who would be identifiable. This did not apply to casual passers-by, as they were not possible to trace.
3.1 Track: Experimenting with the concert setting
3.1.1 Bryggen - an open-air historic setting
3.2.2 Sanguineus and Melancholicus
6.3 Für Kenner und Liebhaber – music from the inside
With this writing, my aim is to articulate my personal encounter with the music of Emanuel Bach – just what it is I find so compelling, and which I try to convey in BLOCK CAPITALS when I play it. If I can manage to put this into words, I might in turn be able to say something about what I do to realise it.
What I mean to convey will essentially be common to many musicians. I cannot know what – if anything – is particular to me, although I have some sense of my personality traits. I describe my impressions as a musician based on an ideal situation. When I am concentrating, know the music, and feel in charge of the situation. Of course, it’s not always like that. But the idea here is to articulate my artistic intentions, not list potential potholes.
Now, with all disclaimers made, where to start?
When I open a book and see a piece of music.
That’s when I take in a lot of detail in the score that tells me something about what the music is about. The true content – maybe. Or not even maybe: my picture of the true content, of which I must be completely convinced as I am about to pronounce it. It might be different the next time I play the piece – when my image might be different. But here and now, THIS is the version that counts.
Take it in, in a single breath. On the exhale, I start singing the music – with the clavichord. The breathing is actually physical, but perceived as linked to the start of the storytelling; –Inhale: What am I about to sing? Exhale: Right, it goes like this…
Rather than theorizing on the details, in the act of starting the piece I let the details combine into my picture of the whole. (In the way that an accidental, or an added sixth in a chord in basso continuo is associated more with the colour of the chord than with the principles of harmony. A voice may acquire a new direction from the modulation. I register these directions bodily; my left side strains down and over in a cramped fashion and so forth.)
In this way, the details come together as a homogenous entity, with a character, a meaning that is distinct and compelling. Full of complexity it may be, yet distinct and compelling.
The whole also has a reverse effect on the details. A dotted rhythm can be played in a great many ways – anything ranging from cheerful, through heroic, through laboured with resistance. Not until all these fragments fall into place and exert their mutual effect does the whole emerge in all its glory.
And of course, this is just the initial conviction I need to start the piece. Any piece of music, I should say.
One of the unique aspects of Emanuel Bach’s music is that it is so replete with detail. Replete with expression or meaning.
Then the song. From the chest. At least in many cases.
And one special thing about Emanuel Bach is how he keeps me wide awake. Not that I lose interest in music that follows a more or less predictable progression for four measures. But I can allow that kind of music to play itself more easily, I can go with it and let it happen.
Emanuel always has something unexpected in store. It might just be a shift – but not necessarily; all it takes is an accent or a variation to cast the material and hence its expression in a slightly different light. A bassnote that didn’t sound – ooops – I nearly stumbled there! Where did that hole in the floor come from? We’d better watch out here.
– He might start the piece by going directly round the bend and into the next room. Without any pleasantries. Here he stops abruptly, and you won’t get a word out of him. – He might start to say something – and then stop mid-sentence and go on about something completely different. – He gets caught up in something, and doesn’t see it through. Or falls in love with a tiny detail and just wants to gaze at it — for ages AND then he reverts to his first sentence, which originally at least, almost made sense. – He might laugh it all off because the seriousness got too heavy. Other times, the seriousness has to be rubbed in – RUUUUB – so we don’t know what’s up or down and just want to curl up.
And this – this is what I’m supposed to have something rational and vaguely coherent to say about?! Not that no-one ever attempted this before. There are analyses based on rhetoric/Klangrede (Busch 1989), on form (Hegdal 1989), on Pre-Classical/rhetorical expression and approaches to ‘individual expression’ (Kleiberg 1989). My impression is that people fascinated by the music of Emanuel Bach see him as unique – and have their own perspectives or paradigms for explaining what he does that is so extraordinary.
For my own part, I register that I am considering a great many variables in one go when I come to play the music. All combined, these variables make up the expression – or the content. Again, my perspective may be incomplete or one-dimensional seen from someone else’s point of view. But it is the whole I am seeking to describe.
When I come to shape a piece of music, I usually start out intuitively. And this gets me off to a good start. But this repertoire goes so far in unexpected directions that the intuitive approach no longer feels satisfactory. A number of pieces go off on such a tangent that I lose the thread, the logic, the plot, my bearings on what I’m supposed to be doing. I need something more than my intuition: usually, in this situation, I can tackle it with the customary analytical tools for music – I can look at the harmonies, for example. But Emanuel Bach takes so many variables in so many directions that I fail to find the answer, meaning the artistic necessity of sudden fragmentation or extended associative series – by the usual theoretical means. That being so, I still feel the necessity of his capriciousness, but I feel it with another part of myself than my musical side.
I have sought to find alternative paradigms for understanding the ‘odd’ or unfamiliar devices he so often applies: intuitively, I find them wholly logical. But I don’t know where this logic belongs in my mental apparatus. It is contingent on values other than the purely musical.
At an early stage in the project, I devised a setup entitled Decomposing Bach, in which I deconstructed the Kenner und Liebhaber Rondo in C Major (Wq 65/1) into bits and pieces in order to invite the listener to reconstruct it with the aid of visual cues on tonality and style – as a ‘DIY rondo’. This was in no way a solution to the problem, but rather an expression of how I perceived these pieces: with the frequent, sudden transitions from one to the other to the point that it was like a puzzle that could just as well be assembled quite differently – and readily in a new arrangement every time.
Later I did an experiment using pencil crayons to colour the expression of the different sentences in relation to each other – but I soon had to give up because I had far more colours in my head than in my pencil case. I wanted to illustrate how the expressive subtleties of the gestures and chord progressions related to each other.
I read the music as expression. As a series of semiotic gestures or statements (which in turn are composed of a combination of details) which together form a narrative – or rather, I experience the same as when I listen to a story. I am immersed in the same emotional progression, the same subtleties, finesses, modulations. And I don’t mean just a general parallel to narrative – which I find in a great deal of music: not just the sense of a progression, which results in insight or catharsis. Instead, I experience the music of Emanuel Bach AS the narrative process. The music is the story!
I perceive the smallest musical entities – the figures, slurs (green lines in the score to the right) like words, forming extended phrases – sentences (blue lines marking clauses, red line marking the whole sentence), which combine into a narrative. These observe the same hierarchical relationship with each other as in the syntax of language, and this determines how I realise the music: the words must be comprehensible and the sentences cohesive for the narrative to make sense.
The ‘plot’ of the story is sensed just a hair’s breadth away: I once sincerely believed, and am still on the verge of believing, that musical narrative can ACTUALLY be translated into words – as easy as anything. I have tried on several occasions. And the logic makes sense for a while, as long as I only translate statements one-to-one. The problem doesn’t arise until I have to find the common denominator – the continuity between the statements: literary and musical narratives do not proceed by the same logic. When ‘this happens, the result will be’ has to square up, the literary work falls apart or departs from the musical content.
I am not alone in reporting on another logic at play, in addition to the musical logic. Helm describes in his article“The “Hamlet” Fantasy and the Literary Element in Bach’s Music” how a group of Northern European poets, well known by Bach, were deeply fascinated by the relationship between words and music (Helm 1972, pp. 278-279). Gudrun Busch describes the evolution of Bach’s clavier idiom in parallel with his Lieder production, demonstrating that the musical language of Kenner und Liebhaber was concurrent with the development of his own Lieder idiom (Busch 1989).
In my quest for extra-musical paradigms, I have to weigh up these factors: how close can I get to this other logic? Without applying something constructed or artificial to the music – without adding anything simply because it would be so satisfying to resolve the equation; everything would be logical and comprehensible! But without it actually existing in the music. On the other hand – if I don’t make the attempt to find explanatory models, I will make no progress. Then the whole of this aspect of Emanuel Bach’s music would have to be tackled intuitively anyway.
The trick is to end the analogy as soon as it has been drawn out long enough, and go no further. Because it will in any case serve as no more than an analogy.
It worked rather well the time I had a personal issue on my mind. I decided that a particular movement was about an inner conflict, and one I had been grappling with for some time. Elements in the music corresponded with my internal arguments and states of mind. But at the time, the musical ‘story’ was not made up of words, but emotions and ideas. And it squared – perfectly. The music felt like a response to my dilemma because it structured my emotions. And the best thing about it was that it didn’t attempt to resolve it: the music became the narrative of the dilemma, acknowledging it as a conflict. And in that it became a narrative, it was easier to bear because I could regard it as a ‘story’. It was no longer a tangled mess within me that was harrowing and troublesome because I didn’t understand it.
This is presumably a criterion in all types of music – that one has a picture of what story it is telling?
– But no, that’s not the point here. Because it’s in the WAY it is told. That it is so evident that the music is narrating. Because it is constructed out of emotional statements, and the form thus becomes a stream of emotions and thoughts in conflict and discourse?
The fact that the form does not line up, does not always end well, is also what makes it appear more realistic than “perfectly formed” music. It is, after all, extremely rare in life that a difficult inner dilemma is ‘reconciled’ like the development section in a Mozart sonata…
I regard the Kenner und Liebhaber music as profoundly human. Sense AND sensibility. Both the one and the other: “I’m telling you this, with all I possess of me-ness — all the gifts and resources that are mine, both intellectual and emotional. Holding neither one nor the other back. They are not in conflict.
I must do all in my power to be human because it is demanding. I must do all in my power to make music because it entails exactly the same. And maybe I won’t quite make it, but I TRY! All that I can. And in this way, we all progress, which is what counts.”
I try. This is an important point in my understanding of this repertoire. The musical forms have all the traits of this ‘start and stop’ described above: I have not decided what I’m going to say before I say it. Meaning that my statements are not well-balanced, and cannot always be reconciled. The music does not present well-formed truths, and that may be what makes it all the more truthful. It does not convey answers and solutions; but that which does not add up; that which we are seeking; that which is open and vulnerable. Life is not perfect in form.
Rebecka Ahvenniemi writes of something she calls ”Composition in essay form” in her article of the same name. She writes ”It is necessarily vulnerable, and lacks an established, affirmative voice. It does not find reconciliation within an institutionalized musical syntax. It reflects affinities between form, technique and material, creating its own kind of language.” (Ahvenniemi 2015, p. 127.)
Although the article discusses music of our time (referring to the composers Salvatore Sciarrino and Morten Eide Pedersen) based on the thinking of writers the likes of Theodor Adorno, I find this description very representative of how I perceive facets of Emanuel Bach’s music. This inspired me to experiment with differences between the confident or quizzical, uncertain voices (‘affirmative vs. non-affirmative voices’), which are absolutely attainable on the clavichord.
What an experience! Here I might seek out the subtleties not afforded by the harpsichord, bless it. This repertoire, on that neurotic instrument! The gestures that are so prominent in the texture of the music – become dominant on the clavichord. And when the gestures become dominant, the music stops being about eighths and sixteenths, about any countables whatsoever: it becomes a series of musical thoughts bordering on the linguistic. Not necessarily formed like a fully fashioned message from A to Z, but as a series of transitions in a reflecting and sensing mind.
Moreover, the music is difficult to play. I feel my limitations as a musician all the time. The fact of it being difficult to realise, but the attempt to do so, chimes well with these qualities of the music.
The reasoning above says nothing, or at least nothing directly, about what I do with Emanuel Bach’s music. But it does say something about what I see in it – what I seek from it – and how I approach it.
To make this less abstract, I offer an example to the right. Here I outline a possible literary reinterpretation of Fantasia (Bach  1988, Wq. 59/6) – a kind of fictional dialogue I believe I can trace in the music. Two characters – one loud-mouthed and brusque with a loud, fairly emphatic tone; the other teasing and jocular in lighter, shorter notes. The loud-mouth is injured at one stage and complains.
But the literary reinterpretation does not work perfectly – there comes a point from which the music and the words can no longer be reconciled, because they follow a different form of logic.
5 The final concert
The final concert of the fellowship project was held in Stranges Stiftelse, a former alms house in 1751, in service until 1972, and now owned by the National Trust of Norway (Fortidsminneforeningen). It has a large common room at the centre, and tiny partitioned chambers on two floors at the sides where the widows slept.
I composed a programme of the elements I felt had been the most interesting and successful: the first part of the concert was from the Literary fiction track in a slightly reworked version of the concert with excerpts from Sterne’s novel, poems by Søholt and my own working-diary excerpts. In the middle part, I drew people closely around the clavichord: I moved the clavichord into one of the little sleeping chambers, inviting in groups of 6-8 people at a time. The rest of the audience stayed in the main room where they were shown videos of earlier parts of the project, contextualised by reflective texts and were served soup, coffee and cake. To round off the experience, the concert ended with a piece of warming chamber music: Quartet in D Major, Wq 94, with Øivind Nussle on violin and Hans Gunnar Hagen on viola. For this performance I played the fortepiano to balance with the other two instruments. Raising the volume after a whole evening of clavichord had a rousing effect.
When the elements came together, I felt that the venue, the repertoire and the instrument were mutually complementary. The interior has a powerful history, and one senses the stories the walls could tell. It is old, and although the walls are properly painted, it still has the marks of wear and tear: it is neither trendy nor grand – the kitchen is close by. The history of the premises, the quietness of the instrument, and the sensitive repertoire were combined for me with a sense of human inadequacy. And of struggling on, as well as we can, as a community.
Impressions of the interior were even stronger in the bed chamber: the ceiling was so low that there was barely room to stand, the walls and floor were worn and bare, in front of the broken window pane hung a crooked, dusty blind. There was nothing to hide behind, for neither the performer nor the listener.
On the other side of the plank door, spirits were high, people were eating fish soup and cake and chatting away.
One member of the audience, Hans Knut Sveen, characterised the event as an “anti-concert”. I had dismantled the customary framework for classical concerts: the flow from one self-contained piece to the next was broken by text excerpts that outlined perspectives on the music, but offered no answers. The texts were very varied in nature and were not mutually connected in content or logic to any real extent, being rather selected so as to outline the complex of questions posed by my work on the music of Emanuel Bach. For the listener, they presumably generated even more questions than they represented for me, as the listener, in addition to taking on board the actual artistic material, may have been asking meta-questions along the lines of “what is she aiming to get across here?”
In the second part of the concert, the distance between performer and audience had been removed now that we were all crowded together in a tiny space. Conversations and questions, demonstration of the instrument ensued. I sang for a couple of the groups – just as I had done at the Hanseatic Museum. I wanted to dispense with and perhaps go over the limit of how close we like to get to each other. I wanted to bridge the gap by doing something I am unable to do in an invasive language to draw attention to the human factor by displaying my own limits.
To me, this was a concert format that corresponded better with what I seek to mediate through the music: human closeness and community, in which we experience music collectively rather than individually. Where the physicality in itself – our bodies, the physical surroundings, the physical instrument set the limits for how close we can get.
4 Closeness and empathy on CD
I wanted to document a style of playing which I base on semiotic gestures, adopting a quasi-linguistic/grammatical structure, in which I experiment with radical timbre on the clavichord in order to explore qualities such as confident versus insecure/querying, resonant and beautiful versus constricted/awkward squeaking noise, honest versus self-aggrandising etc.
But conveying my quest for closeness, empathy and the human encounter via CD format was a challenge for me. One of the great advantages of the recording format is of course that it makes it possible to remove any disruptive elements. Conversely: the fact that it is technically feasible to edit out player mistakes and ambient noise has led to an expectation that the musician MUST eliminate any sounds and any sign of human presence not intrinsic to the music. This is not commonly called into question, at least not in classical music circles.
One benefit of this form of ‘cleansing’ is actually an extremely intimate musical experience: the music can then be appreciated – faultlessly – as intimately as if the listener was perched inside the instrument. Colleagues at the Grieg Academy asked during the project why I wasn’t using video and recording technology to create a close-up experience of the music, if that was what I was aiming for. With the aid of a professional film-maker, I could have produced a TV-quality production that really did place the audience inside the instrument and the sound – virtually on my lap. I would be able to edit out all the resistance that exists in physical presence – the constraint that means the listener cannot be in the same place as I am while I am playing.
That thought is rather alluring.
But there is also something contradictory to it. True, I am striving for closeness and intimacy. But the act of striving for it – of aspiring to what is just beyond reach is surely no less important. This is the same duality I find intriguing in studying historical sources: by continually asking new questions I aim to keep myself artistically keen, inventive and engaged. By striving to get closer, to get under the skin of the music, of the composer, of the audience, the musical mediation is kept alive, dynamic and imperfect. If one resorts to a technical device to create the illusion that this aspiration, this resistance does not exist (since that would be an illusion. You would still not be me; Bach would still have been dead for almost 250 years, and the clavichord would sound much fainter, clearer and more transparent than in your loudspeakers) then the mediation would be carefree, facile and sterile. And I would miss the raw nerve, the boldness which, to my mind, is what makes this music what it is.
Acoustic quality and other sounds
I was fortunate enough to be assisted by exceptional talents: the producer was Signe Bakke and the audio engineer was Davide Bertolini. They asked me to define what kind of acoustics I envisaged for the recording. After listening to examples of clavichord recordings online, I soon found out that I wanted to avoid large rooms and heavy reverberation: the reverberation amplifies all sounds, including those made by the moving parts of the instrument, which are obviously more noticeable in clavichord recordings, as the sound itself is so subdued. Any attempt to camouflage the various sounds with the aid of a large recording room will cause them to blend into the desired sound like a blanket of white noise as opposed to being heard as the short and sharp sounds they actually are. The effect will be a lot of muffling and noise. In other words, I wanted a small room for shorter reverberation, ideally made of wood for warmer acoustics.
Eventually, nicely installed in Hamre Church on the island of Osterøy, Davide was worried that I was scarcely going to get any effect from this interior, as the sound of the instrument wasn’t even reaching the wall for deflection. He still found it though – the audio mix has some ambient resonance, even though it is very close.
Page turns and bodily presence
I chose to include page turns in the ambient sound so as to draw attention to the physicality of playing the music. In rehearsing the music, I used a facsimile edition (Bach [1779-1787] 1988) of the Kenner und Liebhaber editions Bach created with Bärenreiter. I used this score throughout the project, including at concerts – and I had always turned the pages myself. In the 18th-century facsimile, the annotation is more densely laid out on the page, and page turns are assigned to passages where they cause least disruption. Not that much thought was perhaps given to the exact position, but enabling players to turn the pages themselves when playing at home seems to me the convention in the layout of decent scores for the bourgeois. Bach duly instructed Bärenreiter;“The notes not too spread out, and not too much empty space. In works for clavier a page turn without rests in advance does no harm.”(Hogwood 2009, s. xvi) Page turns were thus not particularly disruptive for me as I played – being simply part of play.
I was aware that they would not fit smoothly into the usual ambient sound on a CD. But they had become important to me, as part of the music. After all, these were not the only sounds extrinsic to the music in the recording: the close positioning of the microphone picked up a good deal of noise from the clavichord mechanism, and from my body: creaking, breathing, stomach rumble. Moreover, when we made the recording, the spring weather produced alternating rain showers and bird song, and the ancient nave of the Church itself also seemed to have a life of its own.
I received conflicting advice from people representing different backgrounds: the producer, my main supervisor, both of whom are classical pianists, along with the owner of the record company opined that these sounds were self-conscious and needless. The audio engineer, used to recording popular music, my other supervisor who plays traverso, and jazz-trained colleagues at the Grieg Academy did not react to the page turns, or held that they should definitely be included.
I let them be, since they serve as a break in the otherwise relatively undisrupted flow of the musical and ambient sound. They disturb the listener, as a reminder of the physicality of delivery represented by the music, of the imperfection that arises in the physical act of realising the music as sound by means of wood, brass and flesh. They disrupt the illusion of music as an idealised phenomenon – cerebral and detached from material limitations.
Alongside my quest for closeness, I also devoted a great deal of thought to the link between the Kenner und Liebhaber music and language. I was taken up with the language, both as a paradigm of how the music is structured, but also as a medium for putting the musical expression into perspective. I have outlined how I see music as being constructed out of words and sentences that come together to tell a story.
As I studied the music up to the recording session, it was important to me to have a clear picture of this structure. I identified specifically with the story told by each piece. These stories eventually took the form of a key to my mental image of the music, and the individual phrases or thoughts were a commentary on the whole of the composition. Obviously, these are altogether my own constructs, but I thought it might be interesting to read what type of mental imagery I used, in order to illustrate the reflection involved in the artistic
process. The texts are provided in the CD booklet, which can be downloaded above.
Drug of Choice
The artwork on the CD cover was painted by Atle Skudal. I was thrilled at his invitation to use his work: he paints in the Classical style, typically still-lifes of early objects that mean something special to him personally. His expression is delicate and detailed, and the lighting is almost unearthly. It is easy to find parallels with historic music in the sensitive style played on the clavichord today. The featured work, Drug of Choice, was painted in oil on canvas in 2009.
7.1 Final reflections
In this project, I worked on repertoires and precepts that were focal in 18th-century Europe, and through it I have transformed the material by making it my own. I have sought to convey this subjective understanding of the material to audiences, and have investigated different forms of mediation in order to achieve different qualities of collective experience and communication.
The material in itself is complex and multifaceted, and I have approached it from different angles:
I have tested how different venues, positioning of the instrument in relation to the audience, and my appearance affect experiences of musical closeness. With the clavichord as a significant parameter, physical proximity was crucial: audiences gain more, the closer they get physically to the instrument. When they stand very close, in a tight group, a special musical and physical collective experience can arise.
But also the venue and my appearance – how I am dressed and the way I act – influence how the situation is perceived, and the role assumed by the audience: when they are passing by me in a museum setting it is easier to engage with me, but also to move on when they have had enough. I believe that they listen in a different way in these settings than in a traditional concert setting because they are more free in their own behaviour. They are more critical (“how long do I want to listen to this?”) but also more receptive in the extent to which they are actually listening (“I wonder what this is? I never heard anything like it before.”), whereas a traditional concert audience has, by the very fact of attending a concert, knowingly committed to listening to the performer for as long as the concert lasts, and hopefully has expectations of a positive experience.
I have also investigated various forms of verbal context: I have projected, on the walls, Norwegian translations of texts related to the pieces performed, and conversed with the audience on the effect of these. Some members of the audience felt that being served this information in such an intrusive way was limiting for the musical experience. I lean to the idea that by embracing several parallel/contemporary modes of expression, we may understand them all more fully, even if they are different from what we expected – maybe even shockingly so initially.
I have also used literary texts to frame a more intuitive experience of the music. Here, I had no wish to control what the audience experienced, but to elicit the wonder that I have personally valued in discovering the material.
I have reflected on the concept of 'content'; on how I might seek to understand it in relation to Emanuel Bach's music, and how I might let such reflections influence me as a musician. I have reflected on the relationship between music and verbal language, and tested the limits of how much of the content can be verbalised: where I attempted a direct 'translation' of a piece, sentence by sentence, it became clear that the two expressive media are non-compatible, as the translation was soon wanting.
I have worked intensively on a selection of Bach's keyboard music, and recorded the CD für Kenner und Liebhaber. In the CD booklet I penned a poetic portrait of each individual piece I had recorded, since these mental images were significant to me when I shaped the music. I also chose to keep some of the background noises in the ambient sound, as I find that these emphasise the physicality of musical delivery.
Through experiences with the different concert formats and other presentation settings, I have enhanced my awareness of the dynamics that can arise in the human encounter with music. I have discovered that not only the content, but equally the format of the contextualising language, is decisive for the experience. I have tested and acquired a number of tools which, in combination with an awareness of the dynamics, makes me better able to design concert and mediation situations that accomplish what I intend.
I believe that aiming for good presentation formats is crucial in keeping the tradition for mediating 'older' music alive. Here, the Empfindsamkeit ideals of sociality, empathy and collective experience can spur new ideas. The intimate aspects of mediating music were immediately necessary in use of the clavichord, which requires quiet and concentration. I find that this requirement might be quite beneficial for people of our time, since it is intrinsically rewarding.
Bach wrote about musical empathy. I chose to immerse myself in this subject because I believe it to be one of my strengths as a musician and thus the best card I hold for mediating complex content.
In my ongoing work as a musician, I will be continuing to question the how and why of what I do. In terms of both how I present music to audiences, and how I approach the repertoire I play. What I seek to accomplish – in my personal learning processes, and in how I mediate music – must be mirrored in the methods I apply to achieve my aims.
I hope that both colleagues and audiences have experienced something in this project that might inspire their own questions on contemporary concert practices, or surrounding modern-day appreciation and perception of 'older' music.
And then a swarm of insects or wet dishcloths start swatting them. Or perhaps he’s just tickling him?
And here I could have done with a palette of colours to describe a sunset in summer). Every conceivable shade of emotional responses to the thought…
But I’m not convinced any more. I’m no longer so sure there are two characters, and certainly, to be fair, not that he is so insulted.
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7.2 Epilogue - a conversation with Bach
“Sehr geehrter Herr Musikdirektor Emanuel Bach, would you be willing to pay me a visit so we might have a little chat? You must forgive me if I am not quite attired as you might expect. I fear I have no intention of being servile or prettified either – it would perhaps be best if you think of me as a gentleman; this would be easier. Come here and check out Spotify :-) ...Right, you’ve finished watching movies now. C’mon on, let’s hit the café for a chat.
– The thing is, I’m seriously into your music. That’s right, especially your late repertoire for the clavier.
– Sorry, I didn’t catch that? Oh yes, I did actually play contemporary music as a child and in my teens. Which was nice enough, though… it wasn’t actually contemporary, but from the same century. French, if I remember rightly.
– Well, no, most classically trained musicians these days play older music.
Well, because we like it! And audiences like it. Your late clavier sonatas, say – für Kenner und Liebhaber…
– That’s right, of course they are, they’ve been re-issued! I play from a facsimile edition – on a copy of a clavichord from Austria, late 18th Century.
– Well, that’s because I play period music, you see. So I also have to play on an instrument from the same era!
– No, not one built then. A copy!
– No, I’ve not seen the original. It’s kept in the…
– No, I don’t think it’s playable anymore. You know, the strings are old and brittle – I’m actually a bit unsure about the stringing on my instrument. It does seem a bit slack now and then. But maybe that’s how it’s meant to be…
– Wow, thanks, I’d really appreciate that!
– No, there aren’t that many clavichord players around these days.
– They do, but most of them play a new, improved version of the fortepiano! It’s a big, hefty thing, fills big venues.
– Why of course you must see one! C’mon, I’ll show you one!
Here, my imagination is at a loss.
Because what would you have thought, Herr Musikdirektor Bach, at the sight of a big black Steinway? You have great faith in progress, but you are also an advocate of sensitivity. A rock-solid, thoroughly schooled, professional musician incarnate. Beholding something quite new – which you know is the future. With temperament, but the 18th-century ideal of optimism and courage.
You would naturally have sat down to play. Explored the instrument’s character and features. Impressed by its volume and resonance, naturally.
And what subtleties would you not have been able to produce? Not so few I reckon, given your adept clavichord technique – But you would have known that there was more to the instrument than you could bring out on a first attempt.
I would have to take you to a concert so you could really hear it. Contemporary music, probably, knowing you. And then hear some Romantic symphonic music. You like? Perhaps there’s no point asking. It is what it is.
What I am sure of, is that you would have been mad keen to understand it, to read history, philosophy, aesthetics. And write new music! Talk to musicians, artists, thinkers. Gone to concerts. Have been astonished by the music around us continually in every situation.
What would you have said about those of us who attempt to understand and apply early principles when playing early music?
I have no idea. The idea of playing such ancient music would have been quite alien. An even more alien idea would be of having to make such an effort to arrive at the ‘old ways’. I think you would have been flattered, and I suspect you would not have disapproved of that particular aspect.
But you would not have understood the point of period music unless there was an artistic intention: that it expresses something we need. The recurring question: does contemporary music not provide the best of all? – Let me write new music. Music appropriate for this age, the new instruments, the new settings.
Would you have appreciated the need to revert to a more tender, more nuanced, more intimate tonal ideal? Most certainly. On period instruments? Hmmm. I don’t know. Again – your faith in progress…
What would you have said about the results? Are we getting it right? I reckon you would have thought it sounded pretty weird. Like if I and a friend had taught ourselves Hindi, without having anyone to consult on pronunciation. With a tonne of literature, and a dictionary with a mini-grammar. The problem being that my friend has a different dictionary, from a different region, and the grammar was laid out differently. Plus, in both books there was a chunk of pages missing. And then we meet someone from India: our pronunciation would have been peculiar, we would have behaved ‘wrongly’ and used the wrong phrases. We would still have been Norwegians.
What would you have said to me? The same as ever: “You play like a trained bird? A parrot?” Or, “heavens, what a mess you are making of it?” Where on the scale am I? Am I even on the right scale?